The story has been told of Alagba, the oldest tortoise in the world who died after witnessing the reign of 17 Ogbomoso kings.
Photo credit: Sun News
Thursday October 3, 2019 was a day that will remain fresh for a long time in the memories of tourists across the globe and the people of Ogbomoso in Oyo State, Southwest of Nigeria.
It was one day that major tourist attraction to the palace of Soun of Ogbomoso, fondly called ‘Alagba’ (the elderly) breathed its last after sojourning for 346 years on earth and reigned with more than 17 monarchs of Ogbomoso land.
The dead tortoise reportedly left a great impact behind, which has made palace household, Ogbomoso community and stakeholders in the tourism sector mourn Alagba’s demise.
Investigation by Sunday Sun revealed that Alagba was brought to Ogbomoso in by the first Soun, Ogunlola Ogundiran. But the tortoise was not known to members of the public until during the reign of the current Soun of Ogbomosoland, Oba Jimoh Oyewumi Ajagungbade III, who was born on May 27, 1926, and ascended the throne of his forefathers on October 24, 1973.
As at 2016, Oba Oyewumi, in an interview with this reporter, when he joined the league of nonagenarians, said Alagba was 343 years and by this year 2019, Alagba should be 346 years.
Sunday Sun gathered that nobody could say categorically the age of the legendary tortoise. It was said to have been brought to the palace by the first Soun, Ogunlola Ogundiran. But there was no record of the time he reigned. It was said that the age of the dead tortoise was calculated from the time of the third Soun and that the tortoise had been in existence before the reign of the third Soun. The present Soun is the 20th one in Ogbomoso land. Therefore, the 346 years given to the tortoise was an approximation.
Alagba lived in the old palace and it was when the old palace was torched to pave way for the new palace that the tortoise came out. It was, however, taken to the new palace, where good shelter and health support were provided for it.
In the new palace, where the legendary tortoise lumbered, it was almost a sacrilege to refer to Alagba as a mere tortoise because it was treated as a great heritage bequeathed to a generation by their forefathers.
As gathered, Oba Oyewumi used his personal resources to cater for the wellbeing of Alagba, as two staff members of the palace were assigned to take care of the male tortoise.
Alagba, which was regarded as the oldest tortoise in Africa, was said to have fallen sick for two days before its demise on Thursday October 3, 2019. The palace is also making efforts to preserve the remains of Alagba for posterity.
The demise of Alagba has also cut short the sources of income for some staff of the palace. Tourists and other visitors to the palace had on many occasions given monetary gifts to the palace staff because of the tortoise.
“There was no way people would come and they would not give the staff something because they wanted to see the Alagba. As a result, some people have been in a sober mood since Thursday that Alagba died,” a palace staff said.
Private Secretary to Oba Oyewumi, Toyin Ajamu, said that the tortoise, during its lifetime, attracted people from all walks of life from Nigeria and abroad, and it would be greatly missed, not only by the palace household, but everyone who came in contact with Alagba during its lifetime.
According to him, “Alagba had lived in the palace for centuries. The tortoise played host to many monarchs in Ogbomoso in the past. Alagba became popular because Oba Oladunni Oyewumi, Soun of Ogbomoso land, used his personal resources to cater for its wellbeing.
“The tortoise had two staff members of the palace, dedicated to her. They provided food, health support and other logistics, so as to make sure it got the best treatment.
“Often times, Kabiyesi shared great moments with Alagba. On a daily basis, Alagba, had tourists visiting it from different parts of the world. The palace household, Ogbomoso community and stakeholders in the tourism sector are mourning Alagba’s passage.”
But what was the significance of Alagba to the palace and the people of Ogbomoso? Ajamu responded: “There is no much significance other than the fact that the tortoise was a tourist attraction itself, that people used to come and see.
“Alagba was more popular than even we human beings. Like a popular artiste said: ‘Olayeja’ (popular all over the world). Alagba came, saw, fought and conquered. Alagba ‘Layeja.’ The fame of Alagba went beyond Nigeria.
“We hear stories of Alagba all over the world, especially in United States, United Kingdom and other European countries. Our people living in those countries have made Alagba so popular.
“Alagba, during its lifetime, attracted many people to the palace. Even in death, Alagba has also attracted many people to the palace as well. The visitors have been from Nigeria and other countries. We have played host to many local and international visitors in this palace because of Alagba.
“Even if there is nothing to see in the palace other than the Kabiyesi, Alagba was always there for people to behold. This is to say that Alagba was our heritage.”
But how did Alagba get to the palace? Ajamu also explained: “I was told that Alagba was brought to the palace by the first Soun, Ogunlola Ogundiran. This is how we are able to determine the age of Alagba, that the tortoise was over 346 years.
“People have said many things about the tortoise that it was a source of spiritual power. The tortoise used not to be in the open. It was after the old palace was demolished to pave way for this new one, that the tortoise came out and people that knew about it then insinuated that it was used for spiritual powers.
“But it is not true. Nobody used the tortoise for any spiritual power. It was an animal and it was put on the field within the new palace premises where it lived before its death. It was treated the way we all treat domestic animals in our houses. We did not worship it and we did not have special day for it.”
Fielding questions on how many kings the tortoise reigned with, Ajamu aanwered: “Looking at the record, it reigned with 17 kings. We did calculation of the years from the time of the first Soun till present, and that is how we arrived at the 346 years. But we did not have the record of when the first and second Soun reigned. We calculated from the reign of the third Soun and approximate the time of the first two Soun. This means, Alagba might definitely be more than 346 years.
The next question posed to Ajamu is how the tortoise came about its name, Alagba and he said: “There is no special thing about the name. It was just because of the age. We did not want to call it Ijapa (tortoise) because of its age. It was older than every human being in Ogbomoso land, and that was why we just named it Alagba. We could have called it tortoise or other names such as bulldog, bulltortoise or whatever.”
But the palace could not calculate how much it spent on feeding Alagba on monthly basis. In the words of Ajamu, “Specifically, we can’t measure that. Those that are in charge made sure they gave it fruits to eat. Also, the leftover food, we gave the tortoise.”
He also confirmed that Alagba was sick before its death, saying: “It fell sick for about two days. How did we notice he was sick? We discovered that the animal could not move around freely the way it used to do. This drew our attention, and we invited veterinary doctors to examine it for us. After the examination, they gave Alagba injections. Two days later, they came back to re-examine it and found out that Alagba was dead.
Apart from Alagba, there is no other animal that could attract tourists to the palace. But Alagba was said to have been fond of displaying special characters when it sighted crowd of people and when it heard drum beats in order to entertain visitors.
“When Alagba was much younger, on seeing multitude, it would be happy. It would walk and scatter the crowd to make sure that he felt them. When it heard drum beats, it would let people know that it was in the spirit. It would lumber quickly around the palace. But when age caught up with the tortoise, its morale reduced,” Ajamu stated.
What was the relationship of the tortoise with Soun? According to Ajamu: “There was no much relationship. Alagba was an animal and an animal would always be an animal. If you have dogs or a goat at your various homes that you rear, if they die, you will feel it. You will dearly miss them because they were your animals. So, there was no special relationship.”
But what was the immediate reaction of the king to the death of Alagba? The monarch, he said, “felt bitter. But we appreciate God he (Oba Oyewumi) is living. It’s Alagba that left the sinful world. So, he was not happy when he heard the news of Alagba’s death, likewise all of us.”
On the efforts being made to preserve the remains of Alagba, Ajamu stated: “Alagba was a collective heritage of people of Ogbomoso. I am not an animal scientist, and I don’t know how to preserve it. But we want to preserve it to serve as a monumental purpose in the palace.
“So, we had a meeting and we contacted a veterinary doctor, and we asked if he knew what we could do to preserve Alagba in the palace. He said veterinary doctors lack facilities for that in Ogbomoso. He contacted University of Ibadan for us and the university said they would get back to us. Also, we contacted some professors at the Department of Animal Science in Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH) for this purpose and they said they were not around. Possibly, we should reach out to mortuary and deposit the lifeless body of Alagba there. We have one private company that is into embalming in Ogbomoso. We said before the animal would begin to decay, we should take it to the mortuary and it has been deposited there.
“Some people have been calling that they wanted to do it free because they did not want the animal to just go like that. They said they learnt that the preservation of the animal is also in our plan. In fact, the National Museum has an office in Ogbomoso, and officials of the museum have come to the palace.
“I was also told that a delegation came from Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife that they wanted to keep it for us so that it would be an important reference point in the nearest future.
“One Doctor Oyinloye from Ilorin also called me and said University of Ilorin would be happy to preserve the animal for us. Also, representatives of Oyo State Tourism Board have been here, and said possibly by next week (this week), they are coming to do something about it. We cannot wait. We should, at least, do something. We have common focus that we should do something to keep it so that it would not get rotten.”
Mr Samuel Ojo is the king’s trumpeter (Kakaki Oba Ajifondundun) of Ogbomoso, and head of the crew that took care of Alagba during its lifetime. In this encounter with Sunday Sun, he said: “I took care of Alagba. I have been working in the palace for close to 10 years. My duty was to take care and feed Alagba, and at the same time know when it was sick.
“Alagba, during its lifetime, ate amala, pounded yam, eba, rice, pawpaw, and other varieties of fruits.
“A day to the time the tortoise would die, that was on Wednesday, some people came to look at it. The visitors included corps members. They played with it, took photographs with it and even on that Wednesday, we gave it watermelon.
“The following day, which was Thursday, we took some corps members that came to the field where Alagba was. When we got there, we discovered that the tortoise was dead already.
“Nobody can say what caused its death because God is the owner of life. So, Alagba’s time came and that was why it died. But the death of Alagba has sent us into sober mood. We are not happy that Alagba is dead. When I said we, it includes all Ogbomoso people, including Soun. If possible, another tortoise should be brought to the palace.
In 2016, when Oba Oyewumi, celebrated his 90th birthday, he fielded questions on the significance of the tortoise in the palace. According to him then, Alagba was for entertainment, saying: “I met Alagba in the palace. Tortoises do live long. The tortoise fell sick around 2009 and we took it to Ibadan for treatment. The male tortoise had a very big bump on its neck. The veterinary doctor said Alagba would undergo corrective surgery.
“But the doctor said the chance of survival of Alagba was 50-50. They asked if they should operate on Alagba and I said: ‘You are the doctor, do whatever you want on the tortoise.’ Then, the doctor could not touch the tortoise and we brought it back to Ogbomoso,” adding that it later regained its sound health.
But on Friday October 4, 2019, Oba Oyewumi maintained the stand he articulated on Alagba three years ago when journalists went to his palace to feel his pulse on the demise of Alagba. The monarch said he was “not happy because when the tortoise was here, it would play around within the premises of the palace. Many people came to the palace to see the tortoise. The tourists would look at Alagba and they would be happy. Alagba used to sleep wherever it liked within the palace premises.
“It pained us in the palace and at the same time, it pained the Ogbomosos because they were always happy that they had Alagba in the palace. It had many international importance. The people of Ogbomoso would come and see the tortoise and they would also bring visitors. Visitors from Nigeria, other African countries, Europe, Asia and other continents of the world had at one time or the other visited Alagba. So, these are what pained us over its death.”
But did Alagba represent mystical belief to him? Oba Oyewumi responded: “No. I am a Muslim. I don’t believe in anything other than God. Alagba was here for entertainment.”
When asked if he would like to bring another tortoise to the palace, the monarch answered: “How would I bring another tortoise? In what way? What do I use it for?”
The private secretary to the Soun of Ogbomosoland, Ajamu, said two organisations have shown interest to assist in preserving Alagba in the Aafin Ogbomoso for the next 100 years.